Why The Key To A Sustainable Planet Is Combining Biology and Design

Originally published on Eco-Age.

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Image: Piero D Angelo – Biodesign Here Now exhibitor

Fashion tech innovator, writer and public speaker Brooke Roberts-Islam investigates how a movement of biologists and designers are working to replicate nature’s design systems to create sustainable biodesigns and biomaterials for the future health of people and planet. 

Every day, we learn more about how our homes, transport and fashion and beauty products are becoming more sustainable. However, many of these sustainable solutions are chipping away at the global climate change problem, providing retro-fitted partial fixes. With the urgency proven by recent collective measures at the G7 summit, the outcry at the burning Amazon and ongoing ocean plastic cleanup efforts, it’s clear that whilst every positive action to reduce impact is a step in the right direction, ultimately, we need end-to-end sustainable systems to achieve the sweeping change that will secure our planet’s future. Put simply, we need to design and create and consume in a fully sustainable way. 

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Image: Aurelie Fontan – Biodesign Here Now Exhibitor

To this end, there is a passionate movement of biologists and designers studying and replicating the ‘design systems’ that exist in nature in an effort to apply these to how we design the cities, homes and clothes we inhabit, and more. What are these ‘design systems’? Have we copied them in the past, and if not, why not? 

In nature, there are biological processes that create and sustain life (and materials) in a naturally efficient and organic manner. They maintain an equilibrium that only draws the energy required and creates byproducts that support other life. This is in contrast to the synthetic creation of materials, which are imbalanced in the sense that they harm rather than support other life and require disproportionate levels of energy for relatively small outputs. 

An example of this biological versus synthetic material process can be found by comparing silk to synthetic ‘silk’. The silkworm creates a cocoon of continuous silk filament around its body length (around 3 inches), giving rise to a thread that is 1,300 metres long – in just three days. To do this, it expels a sticky silk protein while moving its head in a figure eight pattern to weave the cocoon. All it needs to do this is the correct climatic conditions and its energy source – mulberry leaves. It is an extraordinary organism that creates a raw material that has uses spanning beauty creams (silk protein protects the skin), medical dressings and of course, luxurious fabrics. The raw material has several grades of product outputs and all byproducts have value, with broken and low grade cocoons providing a superior protein food source to livestock, for example. 

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Image: Blast Studios – Biodesign Here Now exhibitor

No wonder biotech companies like Bolt Threads are copying the biological blueprint of silk by using the DNA of silk proteins (bioengineered into other organisms) to manufacture silk in larger quantities in a lab, so that this high value, relatively low impact material can become more available and affordable. The resulting fabric maintains all the natural properties of silk and ideally it would eventually reduce our overdependence on cotton and synthetic substitutes. Currently, silk makes up only 0.18% of textiles used globally. The most common fabrics used in clothing are cotton and synthetics (polyester is one example). 

Prior to this biodesign effort by Bolt Threads, the industry approach to replicating silk was to create synthetic fibres and weave them in a manner that attempts to mimic the look and feel of silk. These synthetics had the added benefits of being machine washable, much less fragile, and much cheaper than silk. However, as we now know, they are also often treated as disposable – particularly in fast fashion – and this has contributed to the microplastic pollution problem, strengthening the case for more solutions like Bolt Threads bio-engineered spider silk. 

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Image: Open Cell, Shepherd’s Bush

In the UK, there is an emerging community of biologists and designers working in tandem on solutions in the same realm as Bolt Threads. Pivotal to this community are graduates from degrees such as MA Material Futures and the new MA Biodesign degree, launching at Central Saint Martins later this month. In addition, co-working lab spaces such as Open Cell in West London are making biodesign and materials research accessible to the most ambitious and creative minds at the beginning of their careers, on small budgets. 

In addition, the Biodesign Challenge launched in 2016 fosters collaboration among art, design, and biology students, helping to cultivate the first generation of bio-designers and build meaningful public dialogue about biotech and its uses. Its executive director, Daniel Grushkin, said that: “future designers must fully understand the debates surrounding biotech so when they are asked to design with it, they do so thoughtfully and ethically.” 

In September, London sees the annual design festival present the most cutting-edge product and material design to industry and consumers alike. The Biodesign Here Now exhibition at Open Cell marks the second year that biodesign has been featured prominently at the festival, with a pivotal place at the V&A as part of the Global Design Forum on September 16th, along with a launch event and free public exhibition at Open Cell on the 19th to 21st September. The aim is to share biodesign and biomaterials with the general public and allow access to the lab spaces that are catalysing this new generation of sustainable design systems. 

The work being presented includes non-toxic bacterial dyeing by Post Carbon LabLovely Trash by Blast Studios , an algae-based sustainable material by Carolyn Raff and Rosie Broadhead’s probiotic bacteria embedded into clothing, with the aim of encouraging cell renewal and improving the skin’s immune system. The work of these hybrid designer/engineer/scientists is proof that sustainable design systems that harness nature’s blueprints are crucial not only for the future health of the environment, but for humans, too.

Discussing the Tensions Between Fashion, Technology and Sustainability with Vanessa Friedman

Before meeting Vanessa Friedman, I considered the perspective she could lend on the tension between designers’ ability to create freely and the need to choose sustainable materials.  Is there a conflict?  Does working with sustainable fabrics limit designers?  What new technologies excite her?  What does she think of ‘wearables’?  I posed these questions and more to her, considering her answers in the context of the the wider fashion industry.

When discussing whether she perceives sustainability being at odds with unlimited creativity in fashion design, Vanessa told me “Fashion has always had that tension – sometimes it’s about pricing, sometimes its more practical restrictions, like the need for two armholes and a place for your head… that creates discipline for designers and I don’t think there is anything wrong with that.  Sustainability is part of the challenge of design”.  She believes that when you are making something that is functional, which fashion is, you have to wrestle with the egregiousness of the product you are making.  Her standpoint is one of sustainable materials posing a challenge, rather than being a problem.

Vanessa cites the possibility that aesthetics may be shaped by the advance of new materials, smart textiles and new fibre composites – cellulosic and animal fibre blends, for example – as a huge opportunity.  If such advances could result in less seams required and ultra light materials, like those used by Moncler who are “making warm coats that can by smushed into a tiny ball for carry on”, then all these advances are exciting.  “Designers should embrace these challenges and opportunities as a chance for them to think differently – It should be something they look forward to”.

I am curious to know whether (and when) Vanessa sees a future where the discussion on sustainability becomes a part of the high profile seasonal fashion discourse during fashion month, taking place in New York, Paris, London and Milan, where she sits front row in her capacity as the Fashion Director and Chief Fashion Critic of The New York Times.  “In my dream world, you don’t need a Copenhagen Fashion Summit that’s all about sustainability – this is not a discourse that is combined with a mainstream event because it is a mainstream event and it is part of best practice – period”.  Her take on the sustainability message is “we can talk about it or not talk about it.  You don’t want to be an eco brand, you just want to be a brand that happens to be sustainable.  It shouldn’t be the thing that sets you apart, it should be the thing that makes you part of the general conversation”. 

It’s Vanessa’s opinion that using sustainability as a sales tool and part of the brand message, has an upside and a downside.  The upside is the point of differentiation which can attract consumers, while the downside is that it puts the brand in a different niche for other consumers.  She reflects on Vogue’s former “eco or green design section of the magazine where they would feature a different designer every month… You don’t want to be there – you want to be with Gucci, you want to be with Vuitton”.  Reflecting on her comment, it seems to me that sustainability shouldn’t be a consolation or an optional brand choice – it should be quietly integrated into all fashion brands. 

Moving onto the subject of textiles and manufacturing, I asked Vanessa if she has seen any ‘game-changing’ developments emerging.  She highlights 3D printing and manufacturing to order, thereby eliminating stock and production processes (that have long and complicated supply chains) as the most exciting.  “If you can produce a garment in a very short amount of time to order for someone, you will change everything”.  Vanessa is thinking of the likes of 3D printed shoes and advances in digital knitting.  It is her opinion that the biggest change for fashion as a result of advances in technology is going to be in the production process, rather than “the accessory that tests your heart rate… To me, the really exciting opportunity is in how you manufacture”.  Evidence in the form of the Adidas Speedfactory and the mass customisation by NIKEiD support her comments, as do the advances in digital knitting that have led to a complete transformation of the entire footwear industry through the creation of Flyknit and Adidas Ultra Boost, amongst many other digitally knitted products with simplified supply chains, local manufacturing and short lead times.

Image:  Adidas Ultraboost

When I asked Vanessa which designers or brands that she feels are doing exciting things fusing tech and fashion she is of the leaning that there is a giant gap in this area.  She defines it as “A problem that no-one has quite figured out, between technology companies that can make gadgets, and they are trying to make them ‘fashiony’ – and fashion companies that make fashion and are trying to make them ‘techy’.  You need a third point of the triangle, which is someone who is going to figure out how to meaningfully combine the two”.  Enter a number of innovative cross-disciplinary labs and incubators emerging for the express purpose of making this happen, including Plug and Play and Mira Duma’s Fashion Tech Lab

On the subject of ‘wearables’, Vanessa pulls no punches: “I think ‘wearables’ is the most ridiculous word I have ever heard – everything is a ‘wearable’ – my jacket is a ‘wearable’ and it has no tech in it at all.  I don’t think ‘wearables’ has figured out what it is yet.  It’s a catch all word for techy gadgets you wear, but that’s not really a sector”.  To a degree, we may be talking semantics here, but based on the abandoned Fitbit and Google Glass, amongst others, it’s true that the gaping divide between where tech provides clever capabilities and fashion provides aesthetics and desirability to create life-enhancing products, remains wide.

Image top:  Google Glass       Image bottom: Fitbit

Reflecting further on the state of wearables, Vanessa reminisces about the iPhone and iPod “changing the way that everybody interacted with music”.  She says that in contrast, “there has been nothing like that with fashion – no wearable has achieved that”.  Considering the outcome of our discussion and my questions about sustainability playing a bigger role in fashion, it seems that to Vanessa’s mind, there is a tension between fashion and tech, but not between fashion design and sustainability.

As I wrap up this article, an invitation to the launch of Nadi X by Wearable X – the first Wearable yoga pant to ‘communicate with the user to ‘aid alignment’, hits my inbox.  Perhaps our ‘Wearable’ future is about to take a new life-enhancing turn towards the perfect fusion?  Stay tuned for the verdict.

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